Giant on the move
Why are the U.S. and China trading blows about something as mundane as car tyres at a time when the world is trying to avoid slipping back into trade protectionism?
It's not purely about the $1 billion worth of tyres China sells to the U.S. every year. It has more to do with the $100 billion of automotive vehicles, parts and engines America buys from abroad. China is worried about the direction of U.S policy. Beijing fears that the administration may find ways to thwart China's future plans to ship vehicles to America.
China may not yet export cars to America, but it already exports a growing number of parts. Cars are in the pipeline. A recent spate of bids from Chinese companies such as Geely for failing U.S. and European auto brands have shown that it has the ambition to be the next Japan or Korea.
Auto sales are the only bright spot in U.S. consumer spending due to the Treasury-financed "cash for clunkers" program. Fears about stimulus dollars leaking abroad are one of the reasons the U.S. trade unions have been aggressively pushing for anti-dumping tariffs.
The worry is that the U.S. has imposed the tariffs under a law designed to protect domestic U.S. producers from being damaged by a sudden surge in imports from China. Determining whether this has occurred is a bureaucratic exercise in which experts determine whether such damage is occurring and propose remedies. But there is a political circuit breaker -- the president has discretion in whether to implement remedies.
At least four similar, so-called Section 421 petitions were filed during the presidency of George W. Bush, according to the international trade commentator, Scott Lincicome, but none were approved. In this case, Obama came down on the side of the union. This has raised fears in Beijing that there will be more cases in coming months.
The Chinese side seems to fear that Obama is bending too much to domestic constituencies such as union and producer interests. Washington needs to be careful about this. Since it wants to export its way out of recession, it should not agitate China, which is potentially a major purchaser of U.S. exports.
China does not want the Obama presidency to set a precedent by discriminating against Chinese goods at this time. Moreover, it is concerned that other countries might follow suit and start to target Chinese goods as well. Its reliance on exports is potentially the big weak link among China's recovery.
That's why Beijing, which has limited its protest mostly to words in recent years for fear of more retaliation, quickly spun into action this time. China's counterpunch is equally forceful. It is launching an anti-dumping investigation into imports of U.S. chicken products and vehicles.
The idea is presumably to raise the political cost for Obama of taking his pen out of his pocket every time a Section 421 case, which specifically targets China, is presented for his signature.
During the first half of this year, 89 percent of China's chicken imports came from America, representing a fifth of all U.S. chicken exports. In comparison, tyres account for just 0.4 percent of the value of goods what China sells to America each year and 0.07 percent of China's total exports.
While it is no secret that America subsidises its agriculture industry, China also spares no effort in helping exporters and putting up import barriers to protect domestic manufacturers. For example, China agreed in August to stop some discriminatory charges it imposed on imported U.S. auto parts after a World Trade Organization ruling from September 1.
After chicken, U.S. soybeans might be the next target. As much as 40 percent of China's soybean imports came from America last year. And this year, China's soybean imports increased by 28 percent.
The last time China took retaliatory measures was during the "garlic trade war" against Japan and South Korea in 2000-2001.
Washington and Beijing have vowed to cooperate in seeking to revive global economic growth, but the dispute over tyres has laid bare the two countries' continued friction over trade. This could spill into the G20 summit later this month and Obama's scheduled visit to China in November.
In previous meetings between the top leaders of the two countries, mostly the U.S. lectured and China listened. Now Beijing is more outspoken about expressing its own concerns and many at home are calling for more tit-for-tat policies.
It remains to be seen how the U.S. will react to a more assertive China.